In country where Douglas fir has all gone for lumber, long yellow grasses rustle in the dry California wind. Bleached sky folds into the horizon in a blaze of mid-morning September sun.
Jackson's old Dodge hugs an abandoned logging road. He is lost but he won’t admit it. He tries to convince himself he's headed in the right direction, toward the wild river for three or four days of camping with a couple buddies he hasn't seen in years. Beside him a nearly empty fifth of Jim Beam bounces to the rhythm of the rutted road. Soon it will join many mates on the floor, an orchestra of clinking glass.
Jackson's wife and his little boy are in their cabin 20 miles west, on the coast. When he leaves she tells him, go, commune with your male gods. Howl at the moon, drink yourself dead or alive. I don’t care. Just go.
He bends to her and says he loves her. He will quit. This time he means it. She looks away.
The boy, Caleb, almost three, is playing with his toy cars in the bare yard when Jackson comes through the door. Jackson picks him up and runs his hand though the boy’s fine blond hair. I’ll be back soon, he says.
He is blind to Caleb’s terror, how he has learned to know Jackson’s moods, his wants, to anticipate the sudden torrents of violence. He doesn’t know Caleb will breath easier after he goes, yet yearn for his warm whiskey breath.
The moment he slides into the seat, Jackson is relieved. He likes being alone with Jim Beam and his old car. Booze is not a problem. He has promised. He will stop. He’s done it before, he tells himself. Anyway, he’s been instructed by his pals not to bring liquor or even weed. Those days are over, they tell him, and this is a different time.
But the unmarked roads all look the same and he must cross this forlorn landscape. He is intuitively driving slowly and deliberately, pacing himself.
He is thinking of his wife, Caroline, knitting. The needles go clink, clink. He hears her voice. If only he would stop, get a decent job, get them out of their ramshackle cabin, be a real dad to Caleb. So Caleb won't grow up to be like him, she says, and Jackson's hands roll into fists. Just keep knitting, relax. You'll see.
Jackson looks for something on the radio. He picks up the play-by-play of a ball game, the windup, the call, the crowd. He thinks of the sleepless nights he spent as a teenager looking for stations hundreds, maybe thousands of miles away. A game, a voice. Voices. His father had gotten him the radio. A goodbye present.
Jackson wants to cry but he can't. Caroline knitting in their cabin. Caleb playing in the hard dirt. This empty road curled before him. The game lost in static.
Jackson does not remember driving off the edge. When he comes to, his ears ring with the horrific screech of rock lashing steel, glass shattering. He is bouncing, knocking his head on the roof, but he doesn’t compute. Then everything stops. It is quiet and he looks out what used to be the windshield. The car has tumbled onto a ten-foot wide firebreak deep in a ravine. Jackson's head is resting on the frayed headliner. He is still gripping the wheel.
He turns the key as if he were shutting off the car in his yard, unaware that the battery has been ripped from the engine compartment. Then he crawls out of the tight space between the driver's door and the nearly flattened roof, where the window had been. He lays on his back, legs splayed, arms across his chest, hardly breathing. Eyes shut. He has a headache and a cut on his left elbow.
Within a dozen miles of tourists spending good money on cheap burl, a logger watches a dusty plume rise into the pallid sky. He's standing by his new truck, pissing. He's headed the other way, toward the coast, but as soon as he zips his pants he hurries into the truck, spins the tires toward the dust.
Hey, man, you okay? the logger asks when he sees Jackson stretched out next to the car. The logger thinks he is talking into the wind as he looks at Jackson’s corpse-like body. Then Jackson opens his eyes.
Yeah, I'm okay, he says, barely moving his lips. The logger squats beside him, eyes him from head to foot. Can you move? the logger says. I think so, Jackson says, and raises an arm a few inches off the ground. Anyone else in there with you? the logger asks. Beads of sweat roll off his forehead.
Jackson doesn’t answer, still trying to focus. The logger stands up and walks around the car several times, looks inside, takes off his cap, spits in the dirt.
Jesus Christ Almighty, he says. Un-fucking believable.
Jackson sits up. He makes out the battery, a jumble of wires, a river of broken bits of glass, 35, 40 feet long, glinting in the sunlight. An eerie, orderly trail, marking the car’s descent.
He can hear the faint purr of the logger’s truck up on the road. The logger asks again, anyone else in there? No, no one, Jackson says, touching his elbow, just me.
Can you get up okay, the logger asks? We gotta get you to a doctor.
Jackson wobbles onto all fours, like a boxer at the count of nine. He is afraid of puking and manages to force down the impulse. The logger reaches out and gently pulls him to his feet.
It's a real miracle you didn’t go up like the Fourth of July. You must have been drunker than a skunk. All those bottles. Jesus. You're a lucky son of a bitch I know this country, lucky you got stopped on this firebreak. The logger nudges him toward the edge. I seen a truck go over the side when we was still taking trees out of here, he says. You coulda ended up down there, he says, like him, in those boulders.
Jackson is trying to pay attention but his brain is still not working right. He manages to nod. Okay, he says.
He crouches, reaches into the car and pulls out his knapsack, then his sleeping bag and fishing rod. He sees a bottle with a hair's breath of amber cocked to the side, but decides to leave it. Because the logger is waiting.
They don’t talk in the truck, driving toward the coast. Jackson doesn’t connect the wreck with being drunk. He doesn’t believe he’s that bad a drinker, hardly ever blacks out. Sure he's had a couple of wrecks, even sent a guy to the hospital once. Fender benders he calls them. One or two DUIs. Nothing unusual about that, right? This is different, he sees that. What comes to him is that he really wasn't alone in the car. That there is a presence deep inside that's been trying to kill him for years, that reached out and wrested the wheel away from his grip. He's felt it before, in sudden fits of despair and sadness, and frightening, nearly unresistable urges to put a loaded rifle in his mouth or smash head on into a logging truck. Alcohol is not the problem, he thinks. Alcohol has kept it at bay. His heart races and he begins to sweat.
The logger lets him off in the center of town, fifteen miles north of his house. Sure you don’t want to see a doctor, the logger asks. Just to check? Jackson nods no. It doesn't occur to him to say thanks for getting him out of there. For making a U turn toward the dust. He climbs from the truck. He is still unsteady and his head feels like it's split open. He takes his stuff from the bed of the truck and starts to walk away, toward a bar across the street.
After a few drinks he feels better. He leaves the bar, walks up a hill to a Safeway and buys a pint of bourbon. Money from Caroline's stash. She never checks, right? He calls her on a payphone, tells her he's had an accident. Are you hurt, she asks. No. What about the car? He doesn't say anything. Great, she says. Now how the hell are we gonna get around? He hears an intake of breath, a slight catch in her voice. All right, she says, I'll come get you. Thanks, he says, and hangs up. An hour later she pulls into the parking lot driving a car he doesn't recognize, Caleb asleep in the back seat. He gets in and edges toward her, smiles. She is looking at his dirt-streaked face, the cut on his elbow. Sure you're ok she asks. I’m fine, he says. Car’s pretty torn up, but that’s all right. Can get another one. But I’m one-hundred per cent ok.
He sees her looking at the paper sack between his knees. Her face hardens. I should have known, she says. Why the hell do you think you wrecked?
He’s still smiling. He doesn’t seem to hear. Drive me out there, he says. They'll be waiting.
She hits the steering wheel.
For Christ's sake, she says. I give up.
They backtrack into the hills, stop to look down at the ravaged car. She turns white. You walked away from that? He tells her about the logger. He stands behind her and says laughingly maybe they should try to salvage the Dodge. You are demented, she says.
She grabs his arm and leads him back to the car. He is drinking from the pint he’d bought. It's the first time he could remember her saying she'd given up.
Now that he's not driving the directions make sense and he can tell her which way to go. It was simple, really. He can’t understand how he’d gotten lost. An hour later they see a car on the side of a fire service road. The river shines far beneath them. He reaches over and tries to kiss her but she pushes him away. He doesn’t ask her about picking him up. He gives her the key to the Dodge. She says nothing, drives off. He turns and doesn't see her hurl the key out the window. He's thinking about the empty bottle he's left on the floor.
He makes his way into the canyon, knapsack swaying. He spots Paulie and John there, by the river, guys he knew when he’d first moved to San Francisco, before he got married and moved up the coast. They shake his hand, do the backpat.
They’ve set up camp on sand that will be river bottom when the dry season ends. It is late afternoon and the sun has set over the rim of the canyon. He thinks it was a mistake to come.
Sorry I'm late, Jackson says, and tells them about the accident, the 40-foot roll. How close he came to tumbling even more. And you're walking around? Paulie says. I don't believe it. Me neither, Jackson says. He shows them the scratch on his elbow. That's it, he says.
Sure none of you guys didn't bring a bottle, he asks. Paulie laughs. Just water.
When it begins to get dark they make a driftwood fire. After they finish bread and cheese, he gets in his bag and watches as stars spill out above the canyon. The air chills and he pulls the bag up over his shoulders.
He's thinking about Caroline, that she's given up on him, that he'll never quit. Maybe she's right, he thinks. Yes, he's managed to stop before, but he'd never made it past a couple of weeks.
As soon as he wakes up in the morning he realizes with a start that it's gone, the craving. He’s not even trying. Like magic. He no longer believes there is such a thing as a malevolent presence within him waiting in ambush. It had failed to kill him, and now he is free.
They watch sunlight creep down the canyon wall opposite their campsite. Jackson is crying. John puts his arm around Jackson's shoulders. Jackson tells them he is convinced he has stepped through a slit in time that closed after him and will never reopen. That for the first time in years in hasn't craved a drink.
He surprises himself when he talks about the presence that's been trying to kill him for years, ever since he was a kid, and how it's gone too. He'd never talked to anyone about it before. John pulls him into his body. The thing is, Jackson says, I don't know why. Don't worry, John says. This kind of stuff happens. Call it divine intervention, he says, or call it luck. Do you care? No, Jackson says.
They strip and plunge into the pure, cold water, letting the current take them downstream until they walk out. They talk about girls they'd known, shitty jobs, escapades. Jackson hears John talk about his wife and two kids, his job in software development. Paulie in film school. No more escapades.
They catch steelhead for dinner. They talk less and less. Sleep, read, write, walk. Jackson borrows a couple of books and a pencil. Two days and he still doesn't want a drink. He can't remember the last time he read a book. At night he watches showers of shooting stars, more then he could ever imagine. One of the guys says it's the month of shooting stars, a celebration of the Solstice, the turn of seasons.
Three days. Jackson's written down a dozen poems, ten pages trying to describe what's happened to him.
On the fourth day Paulie and John get ready to leave. I'm staying one more day, Jackson says. Happiest time in my life. I'll hitch back. That's great, John says. Paulie says next time they won't wait so long. They hug him and begin hauling their stuff up the hill.
After he swims in the river he sets up his fishing gear. He thinks maybe he should have left with them. The prospect of sleeping there alone unsettles him. Quietness unsettles him. He could do it, he says to himself, but why should he. He packs up and climbs to the road. In fifteen minutes he gets a ride with a guy headed for the coast, to the same town the logger had taken him. Only fifteen minutes, he thinks. A sign.
Now he clearly understands how his wife and son have suffered. But he can, he will make things right. He'll tell Caroline everything. She'll smile and bend into him. Caleb will laugh when he sits with him and helps build roads for the cars and trucks. It's as if he'd never been a drinker.
When they've gotten to the town and Jackson gets out the man says he's never seen anyone with such a glow. Jackson says, yeah man, I know, and they shake hands.
Fog has rolled in. He looks around for a payphone to call Caroline. He remembers there's one in the Safeway up the hill. Why walk all that way, he says to himself. The bar has one for sure. He picks up his stuff and goes across the street. When he gets to the door he stops and takes a deep breath. I'll be fine, he says to himself. I'm a different person. When he goes in he sees a couple of guys on stools, the game on TV, eddies of dust. No one there he knows. He smiles again. Nothing, he feels nothing.
He walks to the payphone at the end of the bar, drops his gear and reaches into his pocket for a quarter but only comes up with a tightly folded five-dollar bill. Crap, he says out loud. The bartender looks toward him. Jackson slowly unfolds the bill. Relax, he says to himself. Just get the change. You've got it under control.
In an invisible second he's got his elbows on the bar, the bill in his hand. Every cell in his body trembles. What's your pleasure, friend, the bartender asks.
About the Author: Pete Solet lives in the mountains of Western North Carolina where he finds, cuts, splits and stacks firewood to warm his wife Katherine and their requisite three cats . His fiction has appeared in the Great Smokies Review. Poems can be found in the Asheville Poetry Review, Quiddity, Ars Medica, and elsewhere.